It was bad enough that the Bush Administration co-opted the Children’s Defense Fund slogan “Leave No Child Behind.” Then the most famous former board member of CDF, Hillary Rodham Clinton, apparently decided to leave children behind in her rush to the political center, endorsing a bill that contained some of the worst elements of the Bush welfare reform plan.
Fortunately, Hillary’s Senate colleagues decided to take a courageous stand. To the surprise and relief of advocates, the Senate produced a bipartisan welfare reform bill that is more progressive than the current law in almost every way.
The Senate bill, which emerged from the Finance Committee and soon goes to the floor, repudiates the White House vision of welfare reform. But the final version is still up in the air, and the politics of welfare reform are fickle, as evidenced by Hillary’s unexpectedly harsh position. Whether we have a welfare reform law aimed at simply ending welfare or a sincere effort to help families get out of poverty will be decided in the days to come.
The House of Representatives and the White House wanted to double the hours of work–paid and unpaid–for poor single mothers, effectively ending their chances of getting better jobs through education and training. They wanted to do away with exemptions from this workload for mothers with small children and other significant barriers to employment, and make it even harder for them to obtain access during “work hours” to drug treatment, domestic violence counseling and other services that might help people become more employable–not to mention lead more tolerable lives. (The bill Hillary signed onto also contained these provisions.) They wanted to keep the ban on Medicaid for many legal immigrants. And, despite all the emphasis on work, they added next to nothing for childcare, stranding single mothers with young children in an impossible situation.
The Senate has taken a much more responsible approach: rejecting the increase in work hours, expanding education and training, and restoring benefits for legal immigrants. The Senate bill, however, has a few major flaws. One of the biggest is the $5.5 billion proposed for childcare funding, which will not even cover the cost of maintaining existing services.
The final bill will likely increase those funds (twenty-five Democrats, including Hillary Clinton, are on the record as supporting more money for childcare). The bigger problem is that the quality of available care is so inferior as to be developmentally damaging and, in some cases, outright dangerous for poor children. Two toddlers died when they were forgotten in a hot van all day at a daycare center used by welfare-reform clients in Memphis. More commonly, children find themselves strapped into car seats, attended only by blaring television sets, or simply left to roam the streets. The trade-off of more mothers in the work force for more bad care leaves kids the losers.